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Donkin on Work - Hot Desking and office Design

May 1995 - Hot desking – the concept

Christopher Jones gives his barrister's briefcase a hefty kick. The briefcase doesn't budge. 'I suppose this is the only drawback I can think of,' he says, when asked if he misses his old desk.

Jones is not a barrister but a consultant at Unysis, the computer company. He relies heavily on the bulky briefcase which in effect is a travelling office and filing system.

Unysis is one of a growing number of companies that no longer sees the need for many of its staff to have an individual desk. While computer companies may have been in the vanguard of this trend among office workers, many more employers are beginning to develop the concept, often tailoring it to their own requirements.

What has become known as ' hot-desking' - because it involves provision of a desk for more than one user - can no longer be looked on as a development in isolation. Franklin Becker, professor and director of the International Workplace Studies Programme at Cornell University in the US, says that hot - desking is only one feature of adapting the workplace and the worker to changing customer requirements.

The logic seems sound enough. 'About 70 per cent of the time people in jobs like management consultancy, sales and customer service are not at their desks. That is a constant statistic across country boundaries,' says Becker, the only professor at Cornell University not to have a desk.

Those companies which have pioneered the trend, however, are discovering that what began as physical change, often inspired by a desire to make cost savings, is demanding a change in thinking, particularly by managers. Steve Pon Tell, an independent consultant, told a recent City seminar run by FM Communications: 'The biggest obstacle has to do with management resistance. The vast majority of managers continue to measure performance by presence and not by productivity.'

Stephen Jupp, a specialist in change management at Digital, agrees. Tapping the side of his head he says: 'This is where the real change needs to be made and it is often managers who find it most difficult. Good managers manage by results. Sloppy ones assess your contribution by your presence and how long you are there.'

In a truly flexible workforce, he says, the work may be happening in any number of places.

Jupp, for instance, had come from his home to the Digital Basingstoke office for our meeting. We visited a desk only briefly to look at the processing systems. There was no clutter on the desk. 'All my papers and books are at home. It was a relief to have one base for my paperwork so that I no longer had to worry about whether it was at home or at work,' he says.

Not all such arrangements have been well received initially. Some employees worry about the loss of their personal space and opportunity for socialising.

Crucial to change is installing efficient support systems to service the mobile employee. Calls can be channelled from Jupp's extension number to either his telephone at home or to his mobile phone. Faxes are stored in the system and can be brought up on screen in the format in which they were sent, or can be proofed into hard copy either at home or in whatever office he happens to be in.

At Unysis's business centres in Milton Keynes and London staff can pop in and use whatever level of support they require. It may be a desk, telephone and screen in an area near the entrance, or it may be a more private area near the back of the office designated for quieter work.

Workspace design techniques, meanwhile, are being developed to embrace this ebb and flow of work. At Mobil Oil in the US, the workplace changes were driven wholly by a desire to save costs. Joe Licameli, vice-president for real estate at Mobil, has been trying to make $100,000 (£62,500) of cost reductions by saving office space.

Licameli says that when he reviewed office space for executives, he found that many had offices which were far too large for their individual needs. The size of the office depended on the seniority of the executive. 'In my own office, for example, I worked out that 35 per cent of the office was status space, the place where the couch went. We are getting away from that now. It is costly and unnecessary,' he says.

The impact of office 'downsizing' goes well beyond cost reduction, however. At Mobil, executives have also had to clear out much of their paperwork. Papers considered essential for saving are now stored in cheaper warehouse space.

Overcoming the barriers created by the culture of hierarchy and status is rarely easy. In his book, Workplace by Design, co-written with Fritz Steele*, Becker recalls Union Carbide's Manhattan headquarters. Space, wooden furniture and better views were all associated with higher rank, as was the closeness of an office to senior management. When it moved to new headquarters in the 1980s, there was resistance when the company made every office - from lower-grade professionals to presidents of divisions - the same size. A subsequent study, however, found a high level of employee satisfaction.

A change in the way secretaries are used seems to be a feature of many of the companies which have adopted hot-desking .

At Mobil's headquarters in Virginia secretaries are no longer allocated to single individuals but are pooled in administrative support groups. At Digital in the UK, where the people-to-desk ratio has risen from 2:1 in the late 1980s to 12:1 in its Newmarket offices now, secretaries are among the dwindling number of employees with permanent desks.

Some companies have introduced the concept slightly differently. In Chicago, Ernst & Young, the accountancy firm, has developed an idea called 'hotelling', where visiting staff book small offices in a building. Similar systems are now being developed in the UK, and Digital is exploring relationships with shops and hotels in the vicinity of its office.

The company, which employs 4,000 people in the UK, now has a quarter of the staff on flexible working patterns, saving £3.5m a year on traditional office arrangements. 'If you applied that statistic to a quarter of the UK workforce you would be looking at a saving of £4bn a year,' says Jupp.

If more companies are going to adopt this approach the government must look to its statute book. Issues such as employer liability and tax implications need to be developed and clarified. Relationships between employees are also likely to change if social and working relationships flourish in local communities rather than in the conventional workplace.

Computer companies are beginning to accept these concepts and today there are far more working alliances where once the same companies might have considered themselves enemies.

The same may soon apply to managing the flexible worker. Jupp says: 'When you think about it there is no reason why your mentor need be in your own company.'

*Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, California.

© 1995 The Financial Times. All rights reserved

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